Black Camel by T R Bowen

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Black Camel by T R Bowen

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Category: Crime
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A good basic idea and suitable ending but with a plot that meanders and poor characterisation. It's an excellent cure for insomnia but not a lot of use otherwise.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 400 Date: November 2002
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0140285121

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I'm a voracious reader, particularly of crime novels, so finding a fresh name on the library shelves is a treat. This name wasn't completely new to me as I'd been vaguely aware of the name T R Bowen from television screenplays and as Trevor Bowen the actor, but I hadn't realised that he was also a crime writer. The book I found was "Black Camel", his second novel. Both feature policeman Gio Jones and ex-cop John Bewick.

A porter at a Cambridge college is shot and it falls to Chief Inspector Gio Jones to investigate the murder. Because they're expecting a royal visit the college authorities call in John Bewick, who's now working for a private security firm, as a damage-limitation exercise. They want the matter cleared up with the minimum of fuss. The porter, it seems, was having an affair with the wife of the Master of the college - and that's just one of the sexual jealousies and minor enmities that's disrupting college life. Meanwhile, another body is found and Jones and Bewick have to discover what connects the two victims.

The basic idea of the plot is quite good and the denouement reasonably satisfactory. Looking back I can understand what drove the murderer to do what was done. It's the "fleshing out" that's the problem. The plot's allowed to meander along. There were several occasions when I found myself wanting to shout that a certain question should be asked and a straight answer required, but the point wasn't really pursued. If it had been the book would probably have been a hundred pages shorter and we could all have benefited. A good editor should have sorted this out - along with the occasional sloppy use of the English language.

Basic police procedures aren't followed. Alibis are not pursued and checked. If Gio Jones was a real policeman he would be ineffective almost to the point of incompetence. He's so indecisive it's doubtful that he could make Police Constable, never mind Chief Inspector. He's supposed to be the sort of character who has no problems ruffling feathers. Personally I found him infuriating. He's not a character: he's a caricature.

Characterisation is weak. Three-quarters of the way through the novel I realised that I hadn't a clear idea of who was who amongst the main suspects. They were all much of a muchness, each with perhaps one feature to distinguish them from the others. Even these are stereotypes: there's the Catholic, a man who had a strange relationship with his mother and the one who was in the army. I hadn't even begun to suspect anyone of the murders, not because the plot was too complex, but because I didn't really care. I like to become involved with the characters in a novel, to feel sympathy or empathy with them, even dislike, but I didn't. Bewick is said to be "enigmatic", but "two-dimensional" might have been a better description and possibly even generous.

There are a couple of paragraphs which are sexually explicit. I didn't find them in any way offensive, but I didn't have any feeling of sexual chemistry between the characters either. Emotions are not conveyed well. People die, relationships end, but no one seems to grieve or feel anger at what has happened. I think part of the problem is that Mr Bowen normally writes screenplays, where gesture, setting, tone of voice and facial expression add so much to what can only be conveyed in words in a book.

I did wonder if Mr Bowen had originally thought of Gio Jones and John Bewick in terms of a television series. Many of the devices used put me in mind of other successful programmes. The Oxbridge College seemed to be a nod to Colin Dexter's Morse. Bewick's name is pronounced "like the car" rather than as it's written and I'm thinking of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe. Gio Jones is of foreign extraction - as are John Harvey's Charlie Resnick and Ian Rankin's John Rebus. Most of these facts contribute nothing to the plot and seem to add little in the way of characterisation. It's as though devices used successfully in other television series have been thrown into the pot in the hope of enriching a poor mixture.

I'm not going to recommend that you buy the book, but you've probably guessed that already. If you're stuck on a long journey and it's there to be read you'll probably find it harmless. I had a couple of sleepless nights, so I didn't feel the time was entirely wasted. I won't be looking for the first novel in the series though.

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